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Irish President Visits Berkeley, Remembers Balcony Collapse Victims

BERKELEY (CBS SF) – The President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, came to Berkeley Wednesday to meet and thank emergency crews who responded to the collapse of an apartment balcony that killed five Irish students in June.

"As President and representative of the people of Ireland, I am truly honored to stand among you today to pay tribute and give thanks for your extraordinary work and service," Higgins said at a reception for first responders at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza, which is near the Library Gardens apartment complex at 2020 Kittredge St., where the balcony collapsed at a boisterous birthday party at 12:41 a.m. on June 16.

Higgins, who shook hands with the first responders, said, "This tragedy has had an enormous effect on the Irish people. The loss of life and the serious injuries visited on young men and women at the cusp of their adult lives is a tragedy which has moved all of us very deeply."

He added, "We know that it has affected you also. You share this tragedy with us and we join you today in solidarity and thanks for what you have done to help those who have suffered so much as a result."

The fourth-floor balcony suddenly gave way during the party on June 16, dumping 13 people to the ground. Six people were killed and seven were injured.

Five of those killed were 21-year-old Irish nationals who were visiting the Bay Area on J-1 visas, which allow visitors to participate in work and study exchange programs.

Ashley Donohue, 22, of Rohnert Park, was also killed.

Higgins thanked Donohue's parents, Jackie and George Donohue, for attending the reception, saying, "I appreciate your solidarity at this time of great grief."

Higgins told the first responders, mostly Berkeley police and firefighters and Alameda County sheriff's deputies, "Your combined efforts brought this community together in its desire to respond, to reach out and to help.  We saw the best of leadership and care, which watched over and guided the Community's response."

The President said, "We in Ireland were deeply touched as we saw you stand hand in hand with the families as they mourned their loved ones and as you shared in their grief. We are also deeply grateful for the practical assistance that was provided in helping families to arrange for the remains of their loved ones to be brought home."

Flaws in the balcony's construction have come under scrutiny since the accident and prompted the Berkeley City Council to adopt amended building codes to prevent similar accidents in the future. A city analysis concluded moisture intrusion rotted wooden joists, causing the deck's collapse.

The state Building Standards Commission decided at its meeting last week to re-examine state building codes in the wake of the tragedy.

Joining Higgins at the reception, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the City Council passed a second resolution on Tuesday night "to make sure something like this never happens again."

He said the resolution calls for inspectors to be present when apartment balconies are constructed and to conduct periodic reviews of balconies.

Bates said the balcony collapse "may have been the most devastating event in the history of the city" and thanked the first responders for working day and night to help those who were injured and prevent additional problems.

Among those who attended the reception was Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, whose office is conducting a criminal investigation into the balcony collapse.

O'Malley said engineers recently conducted destructive testing of the balcony and the results will be scientifically analyzed.

She said the purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the collapse was caused by gross negligence, not just ordinary negligence.

When she announced the investigation back in June, O'Malley said she hoped it would move forward as expeditiously as possible but added that the statute of limitation for involuntary manslaughter charges is three years so her office theoretically has that long to complete its probe.

After the reception, Higgins and Bates went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to plant arbutus samplings in memory of the Irish students who lost their lives or were injured and to symbolize the friendship between Berkeley and the people of Ireland.

Higgins arrived in San Francisco on Sunday after visiting Washington, D.C., last week.

He will wrap up his California visit on Thursday with a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown and depart for Ireland on Friday.

© Copyright 2015 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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